The federal government is moving to fulfill a key promise to ban single-use plastics by the end of 2021.
But the move comes as Canadians increasingly turn to plastic packaging out of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and is raising questions about what the plan means for a struggling Alberta, which recently outlined a plan to become a major plastics recycler.
“We are living in extraordinary times,” said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson as he announced the plan to ban single-use plastic grocery bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings, utensils, straws and some food ware made of hard-to-recycle plastics.
Wilkinson announced details of the plan in a press conference on Wednesday, saying the ban will layout regulations by the end of next year as the government had pledged to do last year before the start of the federal election campaign.
He noted that the coronavirus pandemic and increased use of plastics throughout it was among the considerations made by the government in preparing the list of six items to be banned, and that many of the items targeted by the ban have readily available, affordable alternatives.
“Canadians expect their governments to be able to address the COVID issue and other challenges at the same time,” he said.
“The problem is getting worse. Action is needed to keep plastic out of our environment.”
Wilkinson said Canadians are only recycle roughly nine per cent of the plastics used in the country each year and that while plastics can be useful, those being used must be recyclable.
“Plastics are very useful. We all use them,” he added.
“We need to make sure we’re not dumping them.”
The move is one part of what Wilkinson described as a “comprehensive plan” aimed at getting plastic producers to take more responsibility for collecting and recycling their products.
It will also lay out new standards for things like the amount of recycled products that will need to be used in plastics going forward, though the details of that will be created through discussions with industry and stakeholders that are ongoing.
Wilkinson would not say when those rules could come into effect, noting many of the conversations require cooperation with the provinces.
“I would certainly like to get this done within the next 12 to 34 months,” he said.\
Aaron Henry, senior director of natural resources and sustainable growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said while businesses recognize the economic value of recycling, the critical infrastructure to move towards a more circular economy is lacking.
“Though we think this is a positive direction, there is a need to address the elephant in the room,” Henry said in a statement on Thursday.
“A key part of establishing a circular economy is to have clear and consistent frameworks for extended producer responsibility, a policy approach where producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.”
“At present, it remains unclear how this policy will address the current fragmented approaches to disposing consumer products.”
Ashley Wallis, manager of Environmental Defence’s plastics program, said the group welcomed the move to ban six single-use plastics and called the broader industrial goals “critical” to reducing pollution.
“Canada needs to put in place a regulatory framework that moves the country towards a circular economy where reduction, reuse, repair, and redesign are prioritized, and recycling is relegated to where it belongs: a last resort,” she said in a statement.
The coronavirus pandemic that has sickened 171,147 Canadians and killed more than 9,500 others has impacted virtually every aspect of societies around the world.
In Canada, numerous reports have documented the soaring reliance of people here on single-use plastics over recent months as many grocery stores initially banned customers from bringing reusable bags from home, and as many looked to plastic packaging for hygiene purposes.
A report out of Dalhousie University in August found a decline in concern about the environmental impacts of plastics and a spike in the number of people buying single-use plastics during the pandemic.
Twenty-nine per cent of respondents overall said they were buying more single-use plastics because of the pandemic, with that number highest at 47 per cent among Canadians aged 18 to 25.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly altered the landscape of consumer opinion on plastic packaging,” said the study’s lead author, Robert Kitz, in a statement in August.
“While tighter regulations and even bans had once looked like near-consensus policy options, that support is now eroded.”
Sylvain Charlebois, who also worked on the report, made similar remarks in an interview with Global News Radio 680 CJOB at the time.
“You could see there was momentum — up until March, when everything changed. It was about survival, it was about keeping safe. It was about making sure our food was safe,” he said of the public support pre-pandemic to ban single-use plastics.
“Plastics became your friend again, and clearly, based on our results … a lot of Canadians are not overly keen now to see bans. They want to just see industry and government wait until we’re done with this pandemic.”
It remains unclear how long the coronavirus pandemic will last.
Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said in August that even with a vaccine, the restrictions in place to counter the spread of the virus could remain in place for two to three years.